The Real Work
In of this title, “the real work” is both the world out there, “washing and sighing,/ sliding by,” and the “we” who “slide by white-stained cliffs,” adrift in the world, but also observing it, and coming home at the end of the day (as the poem’s headnote reminds us) to write it down. Snyder’s poem enacts the loving collaboration of human consciousness and the world as received through our senses, “the interface tide-flows” where our oneness-with-it-all meets the onceness of a day spent rowing on San Francisco Bay and the record of it in words (reCORdari, to pass again through the heart).
We are story-tellers by nature, by evolution. In order to survive, we developed the ability to think about the landscape that we could not see, to see the map of it in our minds, what the linguist Derek Bickerton calls a “secondary representation system.” And then we learned to annotate that map with sounds and signs. Evidence of language enters the archaeological record about the same time as hand tools. We use the term “articulation” to describe both the quality of being jointed (the articulated fingers and apposable thumbs that make us good at grasping things) and the quality of being good with words (the ability to join ideas to things and grasp the world beyond our senses). Language is an extension of our bodies, as much an appendage as our fingers and thumbs and as essential to our ability to grasp the world.
Trace the history of almost any word (its etymology) back far enough, and you find that, no matter how abstract its current meaning, it has at its root some physical action. The bundle of threads gathered here– Walking, Staying, Cutting, Making Hay, Falling, Knowing Nothing, and Making Believe– follows the linguistic traces of some basic human activities– actions so essential to the way in which we interact with the world, individually and as a species (ontology recapitulates philogeny), that they are woven deeply into our language, our stories, our songs.
At One, Just Once
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